There Are 72 Different Ways to Get Students Back to School. We Need One Good One.

This past spring, in the midst of this unprecedented pandemic that is affecting the whole world, the Ontario education system tried to continue to educate students at home throughout the province. However, what we had this spring was not education for the most part. Both parents and teachers were thrown into ad-hoc unplanned learning, and for many parents this was nowhere near enough for their children.

Throughout the spring, I conducted roundtables on Special Education, participated in online forums, and conducted a survey of Special Education during a Pandemic, with the results to be released in July. I have had conversations with hundreds of concerned parents throughout the province.

The Education Minister, Stephen Lecce, announced in June an initial framework for getting students back to school more regularly this Fall, with a need to balance protecting students, educators, admin and all families as Covid-19 is still very much present in the world around us.

The principles that Minister Stephen Lecce announced in the return to schools plan are good, and provide a framework from which school boards need to build their back to school plans.

The framework includes:

  • Voluntary School Attendance, parents can opt out of sending their children to schools during the pandemic.

In Ontario, there are 1.4 million students that will be returning to public schools between JK and Grade 8. They are spread out over 72 different school boards.

There are many intertwined dynamics between Ministry of Education and the various education stakeholders in Ontario:

  • Ministry of Education — sets curriculum, guidelines and regulations for boards.

The 72 school boards need to be held to a clearly defined, simple, consistent set of standards across Ontario that take into consideration and deal with any regional issues that may arise.

students separated by 6 ft social distancing in a class with a video camera at the front.
students separated by 6 ft social distancing in a class with a video camera at the front.

So how can we resolve this?

What are some options that can get students actually fully learning in the fall and have them, their families and educators be safe, and financially stable?

If we have cohorts of 15 students, yet the average class size in Ontario K-8 is 23/24 students, then most classes will be split in 2.

The vast majority of schools cannot see the doubling up of classes in their buildings, so some boards are coming up with alternative ways of delivering classes with the smaller cohorts.

  • Alternating full days for cohorts. Day at school/Day at home.

All of these ideas make the assumption that children are going to be home part-time. This will affect parents in one of at least two ways.

  • One parent will need to stay home during the times that the child(ren) are home.

To alleviate this burden on parents we are going to have to provide financial accommodations similar to what has been provided so far during the pandemic — CERB, Support For Families, Canada Child Benefit increases. However, funding parents to stay home does not achieve the goal of bringing the economy back, and getting people back to work.

There are several ways we can meet these conflicting family needs:

  1. Fund parents to stay home. Have a large monthly increase to the Ontario Child Credit for parents who must stay home part-time to look after their children K-8. They may use this to replace their income lost during this time, or to hire childcare. This would be renewed on a term by term basis.

However, if the desire is to get parents back working full time, we can look at some alternatives to get students learning full-time.

  1. Explore schools splitting campuses into community buildings. Set up alternative campuses in community centres, religious buildings, municipal buildings, etc. to be able to house all cohorts of students every week on a 4-day schedule, to allow for one full day each week for deep cleaning.

Regardless of how we get children to school, and whether it is part-time or full-time, we need to start planning now for different scenarios that are extremely likely to take place.

  • A student in the cohort gets diagnosed with Covid-19 and needs to quarantine, requiring all other students to self-isolate for 14 days or as long as the public health officer feels is necessary.

Additionally, where there is a hybrid between onsite learning, and remote at home learning, educators must focus on as much synchronous teaching to be done in school and provide asynchronous learning/projects/research to be done at home. Grades should only be based on in-school synchronous assignments.

Some other areas that conern parents in the planning of schools returning relate to special education and access to internet and technology.

Special Education

Educational Assistants and Special Education Teachers MUST work together with classroom teachers to ensure that ALL students are able to learn with the class. This is important regardless whether a student is at school in class, or at home. They need synchronous video access to educational assistants, who should also be able to speak with the parent at home to provide them assistance.

Access to Internet and Technology

Fund internet for all Rural, Remote and Northern students. Effective Internet access is prohibitively expensive in many parts of Ontario. Fund a bursary for rural/remote and northern students for the full cost of internet for each term that is even partially online. This needs to be a first step, and the province also needs to begin working with the federal government to fund the infrastructure required to build and operate high speed internet throughout all areas of the province.

Provide technology devices for all students. Access to devices like laptops and tablets are prohibitively expensive for many families. Some families may have more than one child in school, needing to access education materials while at home. Ministry of Education should funds school boards to provide devices to all students who need one, and every school should be mandated to do a technology inventory for all of their students.

Even with all the limitations that are being put on school boards to provide safe education for students this fall, there are ways to support students so that they can have as much in-school learning as possible, and parents can be as financially supported as possible. This will take planning, and it will take coordination between the various levels of government. Time is of the essence, and we need to make decisions now so that we won’t be make more reactive plans in the fall.

These recommendations, based on consultations with parents from across Ontario, should help ensure that educators, caregivers and students are ready for safely returning to synchronous education in the fall. They ensure that many contingencies are accounted for, and that no student will be left behind, and all students will be adequately educated in the midst of this pandemic.

Recommendations

  1. Stability of Scheduling. Whatever plans that are made for September 2020 need to exist for all of the first term. They need to last until end of November 2020 or December 2020. Plans for Winter need to be made by October 31st and last until March break 2021. Etc.

Blogger. Writer. Musician. Voice Actor, Curator of Music. #ActuallyAutistic & Father of 5–3 Autistic kids. Ontario Autism Implementation Committee. AAO Director

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